Thursday, July 08, 2010

Christian Marclay- a healthy (dis)respect for music

Christian Marclay has kind of an S&M relationship with records- he loves them dearly but also loves to beat the hell out of them. What's also wonderfully perverse about him is that his favorite medium is one that's supposed to be dead or dying by now.

In his musical career, CM is technically a turntablist before such a thing existed. Like any decent hip hop DJ, he could manipulate records and create something new and exciting from them. The difference with CM is that he didn't see his work as anchored to any kind of dance music (well, maybe dancing in your head). Because his music leaned more towards the experimental, it was hard for him to find DJ's to play alongside, instead finding kindred spirits in other avant turntable artists like Otomo Yoshihide (Ground Zero). Marclay would create collages by breaking up albums into pieces and gluing several of them together into one record that he would play.

Similarly, in his artist guise, he also sought to literally transform the records that were his sources in a way that seemed to show some kind of antagonism or disrespect to them at first glance. Any record collector would grimace or cry as his performance pieces and videos where he would violently shake or crack a record or make them into carpeting for people to step on or bounce record needles up and down on them or leave them out without a cover to more easily decay. The later manifested itself as his release Record Without A Cover, which some stores still took to fit a cover over their copies of it (when Marclay heard about that, he was flabbergasted).

As someone who's taken special care for years to care for and catalog albums, I have to admit that seeing some of his performances can be kind of unsettling at first but isn't that the point? We music lovers spend so much time fetishizing these vinyl discs that we don't realize how absurd it can be. Marclay shows us that they're just objects and that we don't have to obsessively treat them like precious little things. Of course, for my favorite albums, I'll probably always feel protective of them but Marclay's point is well taken.

The Whitney Museum has an ongoing exhibition of Marclay's work including some of the videos mentioned above plus some live performances based on his graphic un-notated scores ("Graffiti Compositions") and some of his other videos culled from movie archives which also serve as defacto music scores for musicians ("Screen Play"). Some of these performances I caught last weekend were hit or miss though the ideas behind them were always interesting (which is the least you could ask from a good piece of art). There were also art installations where he showed off his love of imaginary scores, culling album sleeves that had some kind of notes/time signatures in the background as well as mis-translated and mixed together record reviews ("Mixed Reviews") which was pretty amusing as well as a giant chalkboard with time signatures and chalk left around for people to fill in notes, writing, drawings or whatever else they liked.

But maybe the most moving Marclay piece in the NYC right now isn't at the Whitney but a few blocks north at the Guggenheim. There, Marclay has a room with displays of unspooled cassette tapes against huge blue backgrounds. The tapes (another supposedly dead medium) look like weeping willows sprawled against the large canvases as Marclay took apart (literally) albums by Nirvana and Replacements (if you look up close, you can tell it's Don't Tell A Soul, which really could use some unspooling). Whether or not Marclay actually likes the albums or the artists is beside the point- as with his record demolitions, he's graphically and gracefully breaking down our own fetishes over the recorded medium, albeit ones that are fading off in the digital era.

Again, I wouldn't necessarily recommend following his example but at least we can hopefully appreciate his gleeful deconstruction of the music we love, much as our favorite DJ's do in their best work sonically.


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